Just about any school trustee will tell you there is a lot to learn about being a good board member. Yes there’s the relentless mass of information trustees have to digest but the hardest part is learning the “people” side of board work. As the past Executive Director of a provincial school trustee association the majority of the calls for help I received from trustees involved issues related to roles, responsibilities, and interpersonal conflict. Board work is people work and it can be messy at times. The good news is that most issues can be resolved through a willingness to work together, learn together, and by keeping what’s best for students foremost at all times.
The following is a list (in no particular order) of just some key truths about being a board member, gathered from trustees themselves, board governance literature, and my own observations in the field. There is certainly more to it than this, but if your board masters these points you will be well on your way of great governance.
(1) Quoting the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want”. One of the hardest lessons for new trustees is that once elected you have no individual power to achieve those things you ran for. You can only achieve your goals by collaborating with others on the board. Sometimes there will be instant recognition that your idea is brilliant – other times, not so much. Don’t take it personally. Democracy can be frustrating, but that’s what got you here.
(2) Once elected you are representing the whole community – not just those who voted for you. You may have run on a specific platform or were supported by a particular group, but once you are on the board you are collectively responsible for all the issues. This is the moving from “me-to-we” part of board work. You are responsible for it all – together.
(3) You are not the Superintendent (or the principal, or the bus scheduling supervisor). It is VERY tempting to want to get in there and fix things, particularly when you have received that phone call from an upset parent. Except for emergency issues that should immediately be brought to the Superintendent’s attention (and the Board Chair) individual trustees do not get involved in operational issues. Full stop. Trustees can only act collectively as a board and should not be jumping in to solve individual issues. When you get that call for help or that complaint in the supermarket line hear the person out and then explain to them that they first need to speak to the relevant staff member – teacher, principal, superintendent. If these have been tried without resolution or if this is a recurring matter that may require a review of current policy, then perhaps it is a matter that should be brought to the board through the proper channels. It’s hard when people expect you to be their dragon slayer but that’s not your role.
(4) There will be difficult and unpopular decisions to make. Of course, you knew this coming into the job but nothing can really prepare you for the angst of having to make some of those decisions or the passion from the individuals whose cause is in your hands. A key part of your role is to make decisions that are in the best interests of the community and its students overall, which often means there will be winners and losers. Passionate presentations to the board and loud protests can place a lot of emotional pressure on trustees. However, the board must act as a dispassionate judge, making decisions based on the best evidence available at the time, existing policy and the advice of senior staff. Once made, it is the decision of the board not individual trustees.
(5) Make sure board work is conducted using proper, gold standard procedures. This topic is so important it really deserves its own full article, but briefly, here are some “dos and don’ts” about board meetings:
- Resist the temptation to discuss and decide matters outside of formal/public board or committee meetings. Meetings before the meeting, prearranged voting, and coordinated decision-making by email should be avoided. In-camera or closed meetings should be restricted to those very few matters where confidentiality must be maintained (such as legal, personnel and individual student matters). Arranging things ahead of time may make for a quick and smooth public meeting, but democracy demands transparency, even if it is messy.
- Run the meetings using Roberts Rules and your local meeting policies/bylaws. While this may feel overly stiff and formal, it will keep you out of all kinds of trouble. It makes it very clear to senior staff when a decision has been made, keeps speaking time equitable, and keeps everyone accountable.
- Live by the “no surprises” rule. Don’t use the public board meeting to spring an embarrassing question or issue on senior staff or other trustees. This isn’t a contradiction to the point above about conducting your business in public. You or your Chair can certainly give the Superintendent or Secretary Treasurer a heads-up that you will be seeking information on a particular matter, and good agenda building should eliminate most surprises. Intentionally grandstanding or trying to embarrass staff or another trustee damages the reputation of the whole district and will hurt you in the long run. Yes, dig for information to make informed voting decisions. Yes, hold your Superintendent accountable. However, do so with decorum and respect.
- Debate and dissent take place before the vote, not after. It is entirely appropriate for you to voice your opinions and possible disagreement about a proposed decision during the debate. That’s why you are there. But when the voting is done, win or lose, the debate is over and you have an obligation as a member of the board to go along with the decision. Continuing to work against the decision overtly or behind the scenes is inappropriate and against the very nature of a corporate board. If you strongly feel the board has made a bad decision there are formal ways to bring the matter forward again if new information might change the outcome. You may also want to clarify your position on the matter during the next election campaign. But apart from that, remember you are part of the corporate board and therefore, you are obliged to at least accept the majority decision even if you may not like it.
(6) There are no successful boards and school districts that do not have a good working relationship with their Superintendent. Hiring a Superintendent is the most important decision a board will ever make. In doing so, you are entrusting the achievement of the district and its students to this one person. Firstly, the board is the employer. It is your job to provide the Superintendent with clear and achievable goals, and to monitor progress towards those goals. However, the Superintendent can’t achieve the goals in an atmosphere of distrust or disrespect. You can do nothing without staff and you can do nothing well without a trusting and respectful relationship. Communicate, communicate, communicate – and if you have any doubts, seek help from your provincial trustee association.
(7) If the majority of your agenda items deal with operational/administrative matters you are focusing on the wrong things. This is related to point #3 above but refers to the whole board rather than individual trustees. A lot has been written about policy governance – and some of its iterations such as the Carver Model have not worked well for school boards. However, I am often surprised at how much time boards spend on administrative and operational agenda items rather than higher level matters of identifying strategic outcomes, monitoring progress, and developing guiding policies. It may not be as immediately gratifying as discussing a tangible operations matter but successful boards maintain that “mile high” perspective as much as possible.
(8) There will never be enough money. This isn’t a partisan statement, just a fact. The needs and opportunities in your district will always outstrip the funds available, so tough allocation decisions will always have to be made. It’s the nature of the beast. Yes, advocating for more provincial funding for your district is an important role for your board and your provincial association. But if you always use the lack of funding as a reason for not meeting your district’s goals then you are missing the point. In addition to advocating for more money you have a responsibility to appropriately allocate the limited funds available as best you can. It’s tough but that’s what good boards do.
(9) Being on a school board is a difficult, time demanding job. However, it is also a rewarding commitment that makes a difference in students’ lives and your community’s future. I strongly believe there is a direct relationship between good governance and student achievement. Being a good board member requires time and hard work, but when you drive home after those long and difficult meetings you can be assured that you are doing more than just moving along the business of the district. You are setting the conditions that will impact student success both today and for years to come. Every student in your district has a future and you have a hand in what that will be. And that’s awesome!
(10) Lastly, take heart, have courage, and know that you are not in this alone. You are a member of board – work together. Your board is a member of a community of trustees throughout the province and across the country. Tap into the resources and expertise of your provincial and national school boards associations – learn together. Being a school trustee is one of the greatest things you will ever do!
Stephen Hansen firstname.lastname@example.org